I’m lucky enough to know a number of very talented people – bloggers, artists, writers, musicians, photographers, scientists, even a ballet dancer. My tastes are very eclectic and these people fill my head, my eyes, my ears, and my heart with more important things than I can list. They are remarkable people and it is an honor to know them.
In keeping with various statistics, they also have a higher rate of mental illness and other emotional problems than my luckier “normal” friends and acquaintances. There is a fine line, as they say, between brilliance and madness.
Though I don’t pretend to have as much talent as most of them, my own mental illness – and make no mistake, it is a mental illness – is clinical depression. I’ve suffered from it almost my entire life and have been from barely functional in high school to highly functional now. Through a combination of grit, very long and expensive therapy, and drugs – yet another reason why universal health care is so important – I keep it mostly controlled. In fact, so well-controlled most people are shocked to know I’m a sufferer. But, it never goes away…ever. It always lurks in the background ready to creep in at any time. It is the true elephant in my room.
There are relative constants in depressives’ experiences, usually revolving around the reactions of the unafflicted.
In general, people unacquainted with depression view it as a sort of bad hair day on steroids. They “know” you’re down, but hey, who isn’t? After all, they’ve felt down – like when their cat died, or when they had that fender-bender, or when their boyfriend cheated on them. They “know” how hard it is to pick yourself up, but chin up and give it a little time. “You’ll be your old self again in no time.”
I can understand that point of view. To the uninitiated, depression is event-based and mostly transitory – my cat died, therefore I am sad. It will pass. Not to minimize it, but that is not true depression.
While your bad hair eventually straightens out, many depressives rarely feel truly happy, only less sad – regardless of events, therapy, medication, or baskets of cute puppies. As with all mental illnesses, families suffer right along with them – sometimes deepening the depression.
Getting the “cheer up” speech in the middle of a depressive episode is one of the things that drive depressives, well, crazy. It is like telling a morbidly obese person to stop being silly and eat less. The morbidly obese aren’t simply folks with big appetites, they are battling other problems. Depressives are the same. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be fat or depressed.
The other pet peeve comes from the helpful expert with an aunt or cousin twice-removed who “suffers terribly from depression”. By virtue of their exposure to the poor wretch – whether that person is 3000 miles away or truly depressed or not – they’ve become the less-religious equivalent of a depression faith healer.
“My cousin was depressed and she took St. John’s wort for a few weeks. She was as good as new.” WHAP! Out damn depression, I command thee!
“My hairdresser was depressed and she took massive doses of vitamin B, ate three eggs per day, and rubbed a special crystal on her forehead. Cured her almost immediately.” SMILE YOU ILL-TEMPERED WRETCH! Let the sun of all that is good enter your head and banish all bad thoughts!
Sadly, both of these examples are true. They, along with many other more benign suggestions are offered as innocent help, but have the opposite effect. Imagine waking up from heart surgery to hear someone say, “I know they did a bypass, but your doctor should really have used a stent. It would have been much less painful.” If you are normal, the next patient in your bed would probably be the stent-meister.
So in the spirit of fostering peace and understanding, keep a few things in mind.
Depressives know they are depressed. They know how deep it is and the subtle shades it has. They know what they can and can’t do about it – and trust me on this – have probably tried. The last thing they need is an anthropomorphized ray of sunshine to remind them of all the things you think they should do.
And always remember this: you are not a doctor, or a faith healer for that matter. Chances are, the depressed person has tried every med or gimmick in the book. If they are lucky enough, through painful trial and error, they already use something that works – after a fashion. It isn’t perfect and it will need to change periodically, but it holds the demons away much better than all the St. John’s wort in China.
There is no need to let depressed friends or relatives sit in the corner like a stump. They are people and usually like having people around who talk to them like other normal people about normal things – just without all the “helpfulness”. Unless we tell you otherwise, it is not only OK, but appreciated by most of us. It’s even OK to ask directly about the depression, but only if you are truly curious or concerned. It is suspect light dinner conversation. You needn’t to try to fix our problem. Just listen, show normal concern if you’d like, and end with something like, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Neither of us needs anything more than that.